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In the fight for racial justice, here's what white allyship looks like

At a time when many are looking to do more than just post to social media, here's what the experts have to say about meaningful allyship.

Erin Carson Former Senior Writer
Erin Carson covered internet culture, online dating and the weird ways tech and science are changing your life.
Expertise Erin has been a tech reporter for almost 10 years. Her reporting has taken her from the Johnson Space Center to San Diego Comic-Con's famous Hall H. Credentials
  • She has a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.
Erin Carson
6 min read

Protesters come together in Manhattan in early June.

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As protesters worldwide call for racial justice in the wake of George Floyd's death, some have found themselves trying to better understand the concept of "white allyship." 

What is an ally? Some people prefer terms like "accomplice" or "co-conspirator," but the basic concept relates to becoming educated about racial issues and supporting anti-racism efforts through action. 

Broad-strokes advice on allyship often includes things like: Listen more than you speak; don't assume you know everything; don't get defensive when you don't know everything; apologize when you get something wrong; remember that being an ally isn't about you or your feelings; don't expect a gold star for not being racist. And that's just to start. 

For some, this might be the first time they're starting to dig into what it means to be an ally. 

But more and more people are likely asking this question after the world has had its eyes on protests in the US and elsewhere calling for justice after a black man in Minnesota named George Floyd was killed by the police.

Floyd's death is part of a history of police brutality against black Americans, including Breonna Taylor, whom police shot dead in her home in Louisville, Kentucky in March. The outrage over these deaths represents a tipping point on racial injustice in the US. Bystanders captured the events leading up to Floyd's death on May 25 with their smartphones and widely spread the videos, attracting more mainstream attention than ever. In the US alone, there have been protests in more than 400 cities, big and small.

A Monmouth University poll last week found that 76% of Americans (71% of white people) called racism and discrimination "a big problem" in the country. That's a 26 percentage point jump in just five years.

More people are taking action to solve this problem. In the White Ally Toolkit Workbook, author, speaker and founder of The Dialog Company, David W. Campt, who facilitates workshops on the topics of "inclusion and equity, cultural competence, and intergroup dialogue," writes that he uses the term "ally" as shorthand for "any white person who thinks racism against [people of color] is a special problem, and who sometimes takes specific actions to combat it."

It's not hard to find a variety of resources aimed at helping white people understand how to be better allies. 

In Campt's explanation of the term, he also acknowledges that the term itself isn't perfect -- and not everyone even agrees with its usage. 

Emily Joye McGaughy, a facilitator for Allies for Change's Doing Our Own Work: An Anti-Racism Seminar for White People,for example, prefers terms like "comrade" or "co-conspirator" because they carry less of an implication that a white person is fighting someone else's fight on that other person's behalf. In prepandemic times, Allies for Change held the 40-plus-hour seminar in cities and towns across Michigan, as well as out of state in places like Seattle, Chicago and Cleveland. 

"To end white supremacy is to end it in ourselves," McGaughy said. "I don't think of it as someone's else's fight, I very much think about it as my fight that is not disconnected from the lives of black and indigenous people of color." 

Indeed, anyone who has been on social media has likely run into plenty of conversation about what exactly constitutes an ally, and about the dangers of using the term as merely something to pin on a lapel. (There's also been talk about, say, posting a black box on social media without taking further action.) 

The Dismantle Collective, which describes itself as an "all person of color group whose goal is to name, disrupt, and dismantle white supremacy," explains on its resource page for white allies that being an ally is more of a process: "[it] is not an identity, it is an ongoing and lifelong process that involves a lot of work." 

As Ibram X. Kendi wrote in his 2019 book How to be an Antiracist, neither being a racist nor an anti-racist is a fixed identity: "What we say about race, what we do about race, in each moment determines what -- not who -- we are." 

Working from within

When it comes to talking about allyship, "work" is the operative term.

Whether someone is starting to realize just how deep the roots of systemic racism run, or someone has been aware for a while, there's not some final transcendent level to achieve. 

Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, offers a two-page Antiracist Checklist. The list contains behaviors to adopt: 

  • "I readily accept -- with no explanations or 'proof' necessary -- a person of color's position or perception."
  • "I realize 'it's not about me.' I avoid personalizing racial issues as they are raised in conversation."
  • "I can accept leadership from people of color as well as from white people."

And others to avoid:

  • "When people of color point out racism as it is happening, I feel personally attacked."
  • "I use meeting time to establish my antiracist credentials (e.g., recounting stories about how I 'marched in the Sixties' or about how many friends of color I have)."
  • "I speak for people of color and attempt to explain their positions."

Particularly now, amid worldwide protests and a renewed exploration of racial injustices, there are long material lists covering what to read, watch and listen to for further education on racism and its effects. 

What underpins a lot of these resource guides is the idea that white people need to take responsibility for this introspective work themselves, and not rely on people of color to educate them. As much as people might think going to a person of color is a sign of goodwill, openness or proof they're "one of the good ones," it's placing the burden on the person they're going to for guidance, experts say. 

People of color "are increasingly fatigued by educating white people," Campt wrote in the White Ally Toolkit Workbook. "They're already dealing with the additional burden of coping with racism."

To start, the folks white people should be talking to about education are other white people, said Leslie Mac, who facilitates workshops on social justice strategies, including ones on white allyship. 

"We talk about the different facets of white supremacy culture, the ways in which they themselves participate in, support, and tolerate white supremacy culture," Mac said, "it's an 'I, us, we' conversation they need to be having with themselves and the people in their lives."

In the Doing Our Own Work workshop, McGaughy said, participants role-play scenarios they're likely to encounter -- like someone saying "all lives matter." Before becoming a facilitator McGaughy herself took the seminar, nearly 11 years ago, thinking at the time that she was a "good white liberal progressive," who came from the east side of Los Angeles and cared about justice. But really, she had no clue how "whiteness has weaponized [her] entire being." 

"It was the first time that I'd ever been in an all white space where I felt like people were holding each other accountable for racism without the presence of people of color in the room."

Getting active

All this self-education and introspection is only a start, both McGaughy and Mac said. 

McGaughy stressed not getting "insulated in white work." 

"There is no substituting relationships of accountability and support with people of color and supporting movement leaders," she said. 

In Mac's workshops, participants make actionable plans -- and make sure those plans align with the goals of local organizers and support broader objectives.

"They need to be doing the work that they can [and] affect the power structures that they have access to, the ways in which those structures function, and what they can do to disrupt them," she said, noting that past participants have gone on to raise $50,000 for bail funds and gotten their school board to require anti-racist training for PTA members, for example.

Action is important. 

Mac said one of the biggest pitfalls allies run into (along with placing their own feelings at the center of their motivations) is becoming paralyzed for fear of getting something wrong. 

Experts advise to not get defensive. Instead, listen, admit the mistake, apologize and move on. 

"This is not a foreign concept to us," Mac said. "The question is what do you do when you mess up, and how do you prepare yourself to respond in ways that aren't additionally harmful, and actually take responsibility for your actions."

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